With a waitress’ smart mouth and a soft spot for little kids, she uneasily wends her way through the burly world of construction.
I went to a Catholic high school in Seattle. It’s hard to remember what the nuns wanted me to do, just that I should do something respectable. I went to college and ended up doing one of those interdisciplinary study things. It was in the nineteen sixties and I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. I would have loved to have figured out a way to work with kids, but the opportunities weren’t there, and if you did go into something like that, you were just buying into this whole other garbage about professionalism, or so I thought at the time.
I’d always worked. My folks encouraged us to earn our own money and, as we lived in a farming valley, jobs were fairly available. I started in the strawberry fields when I was in the third or fourth grade. My first paycheck was a large amount—seven dollars. On the way home I lost it and my mother blew her stack and said, “You go find it.” I went back and forth along the road until I found it. The money had fallen out of my pocket into the ditch by the side of the road.
In the summers we all worked in the fields—strawberries first, and when you get a little older in the spinach and flower bulbs. Later if you get to be a good worker, you go to work in the barn, which is hourly pay. The field work is all piecework. After that I worked in the canneries for two summers. Then I turned to waitressing, which was my main job until I started driving truck. I mixed waitressing with janitorial work all the time I was going to school.
In nineteen seventy-two, after I got out of school, an employment agency sent me down for a waitressing job at the Heritage House. It was a black club for the most part, but they wanted to draw the big money people. So they figured they needed some white people to work there and draw the white people in to eat there. It was this black guy’s dream to have a real hot club that was sophisticated down in the Central area, and he did a pretty good job, but there were other people who wanted to siphon money off on the side and kinda got in trouble for that. It was pretty interesting working there. The guys I was working with were mostly these young Black Muslims and were really dedicated to seeing an all-black area. Like they really wanted it to be like Chicago, where they wouldn’t see any white people for blocks, you know. Anyway they were really neat guys, good people to work with.
I quit there when the management changed and got on with the phone company. They were terrible to work for. I was a long-distance operator. They were always pushing you, timing you to see how fast you were. I used to come home at night and just cry. It was so depressing. I don’t know what it was about the job, whether it was sitting inside, or being so controlled, or being hooked up to this electronic thing or what, but I would just come home and cry. It was awful. I couldn’t stand it any more and went up to Juneau, Alaska, with a girl friend of mine. I waitressed up there in this neat old cafe that was kinda the working people’s place to go. Everybody went there. The Indians and the state people, even the governor. The guy that was running it was this Japanese guy that’d toss a cup of coffee down the counter to the guy that wanted it and throw the spoon down after it. Everybody liked him. He had a heart of gold. Stayed there for a year and then ended up going up to Fairbanks hoping to get on the pipeline. Couldn’t get on because you had to have so many hours out of the Fairbanks union local, so I did cocktailing at this hotel that had the hookers upstairs and the pimps downstairs. It was quite a place, but I did get my hours. Money was real tight. It was like you got your paycheck and then ate it in about two days and that was all there was.
Just when I was about to give up and leave town, my name came up at the union hall for a job in the kitchen of one of the camps connected to the pipeline. That was the best pay I’d ever seen—ten dollars and seventy-one cents an hour for kitchen work. But I watched all the other people on the line, and they had quite a few women in all the trades. They were all making more money and working about half as hard as I was, and I says to myself, “Hmm, there’s got to be another way.” Before that I’d always thought I couldn’t do those jobs, that I’d just be a waitress. I knew I could always figure some way to take care of myself, but the frustration of not having a specific job skill that paid decent money was getting to me. I’ve always liked waitressing, but you rely on tips for money. It’s a little like being a prostitute. It’s how nice you are to these people, even if they’re jerks, that determines whether you get tips or not. Working with the public can wear anyone out eventually.
So when I came down off the pipeline in the spring of nineteen seventy-seven, I started a two-quarter truck-driving class at South Seattle Community College. You know, I don’t think I ever dreamed of being a truck driver, and I didn’t really have those romantic ideals of driving across the country in some big truck. But I wanted to learn something so that as the years went by I could get a job and make some money if I had to. Even if you’re married and had a kid, so many people end up getting divorced, it’s really nice to be able to make a decent wage.
It was a pretty good program. They did a lot of defensive driving things. The teacher was somewhat attuned to women. You know, he did like it if you were cute a bit more, but he did encourage all types of people to get their confidence. I think back on a lot of the things he told us, and I’m glad I took the class because they are the little things that in an emergency you would just want to have thought about once before—perhaps only to get some idea of what the options were, or heard somebody with more experience say, “This is what I did.” Like lower gears plus light braking going down hills, using a little throttle going around curves and such. Mostly it does take experience.
Oh, I had terrible fears that I’d never learn how to back up a semi. I still wonder how well I can do it. In a semi you turn the front wheels the opposite direction of how you want the back end of the trailer to go. But the trick is to have a very light touch. There’s a tendency to over-turn the wheel. It drives you nuts. It really was a matter of practice—to just keep doing it until you got it and believe that you could get it, because anybody can learn it. Pretty soon you’ll be able to back up a semi and shift the damn gears. The other girl in the class and I were perfectionists. The guys seem to have a natural confidence that if you jam it in gear, it will go. But we tried to get it in their “right.” We had a little higher expectations of what we needed to be doing than the guys did, I think.
The illusion about going to school is that you’ll be able to get a job. Getting a job is really hard. My girl friend didn’t get one. I went everyplace looking for a job. I talked to dispatchers. I went through the phone book. I walked. I looked. I mean if you try finding some of these places, they have the weirdest addresses. So you spend most of the day finding these places and they all give you this kind of blase “Well, why don’t you make out an application?” In reality, they aren’t even going to look at it. The freight offices—there is nothing that’s going to make them hire a woman unless you’re related or sleeping with somebody. But I had no idea then.
One outfit had women in the personnel office, which really can help, and I got sent over to the dispatcher’s office. In reality, the dispatch office did as they pleased and were not into hiring some “woman” and I really didn’t have the experience. It ended up a big mess, but I did get some practice in backing their trucks and worked a few days for them—enough hours to join the union.
Finally, I started trying construction and concrete companies. This one company had a real friendly woman working in personnel. She sent me down to the superintendent, who said, “Come on down and ride with us and we’ll see how you do.” Actually, they needed another woman on their list for minority quota and I came at the right time. Those drivers were all big, heavy-set guys, like construction guys. It was this real gray place with concrete all over it down by the river, and the offices were ugly. And it was all full of people—men—and they were all standing around, very much in charge of their world there. I just had a scary feeling about it. That was the beginning of nineteen seventy-eight.
There were some disastrous moments while I was being trained, more than I care to remember. One day we were in this really tight place trying to get out of this job, and I was finally getting around this corner, and there were trucks behind me waiting to get into the job, so they were all watching what was going on. This concrete truck has this big front end and I’m going forward, backing up, and going forward and backing up. And this guy who’s training me is directing me forward, and I kept stopping and saying I should back up ’cause I’m getting too close to this car that was parked there. And he kept saying, “Come on, come on, come on.” He was looking real mad and “Come on, you dumb girl, get up here.” Anyway, he got me right next to the car and then had me back up. Of course, not being real together on the truck, I didn’t put the hand brake down. Well anyway, I rolled into the car, made a little scratch, and had to call in. I think I had only been there a week and I thought, “Oh wonderful, here goes my job!” I was so shaken up. One of the younger drivers saw the whole thing and told the dispatcher what led into the thing, so they decided to give me a break. Thank my lucky stars! I don’t think the older driver meant to get me. I think he was just challenging my driving ability or maybe thought I knew better. I don’t know. We’re friends now. As I think back, he wasn’t sure how to relate to me. If I related to him like a woman, he would help out in a patronizing way. But when I was trying to be just a truck driver, it was a little bit harder. He didn’t know what to do with that.
But what else happened when I was just starting? Once I had this old truck and I don’t know why the dispatcher sent me, a new driver, out on this one job. You had to back up this narrow dirt road, and it was like straight up, and then you had to get around this corner. Every time I got the truck up there, the front wheel would be ready to run into the forms on the corner. I tried again and again and then finally I tried to swing out wide, but I got the duals, the back wheels, too close to the side of the road and sank in a soft spot. So there I was, stuck, petrified, shaking, going, “Oh, no, there goes my job!” Here I was with this top-heavy truck leaning into this ravine. The big fear with concrete trucks is rolling them over, and this was one of those moments. This load of concrete had calcium in it to make it set faster, so it was getting harder and harder. I called in a mechanic and another truck driver came down, too. And pretty soon all the guys that were working there, probably fifteen in all, came down. We started adding water to the concrete because it was getting harder and stickier. So finally what they did is they brought the pump down and I got my load into the pump, which pumped it into another truck. Then they took the other truck up the hill and dumped from the other truck into the pump and finally onto the site. They had a lot of trouble getting it through the chute, but after all that hassle and all that help it worked out okay and I was able to drive out of the hole. When I got back to the plant I was really shaken, and the dispatcher actually showed some empathy, took me to lunch and calmed me down. I will give him credit for that. It was definitely my mistake, and he really gave me a break.
The dispatcher is your immediate supervisor. He has a lot of power over a driver. There’s a real difference in the jobs you’re sent out on, and he can really play havoc with that. If you kiss up to the dispatcher, you may get better jobs, you may get on the wash-up rack earlier. When you’re new and inexperienced, being sent to a difficult or nasty job is a real fear. It takes a lot of experience to know where to back in, what’s the best angle, what to do when the customer doesn’t know what they’re doing, et cetera. So when you’re not playing the game the way the dispatcher thinks you should, you may get the less desirable jobs. With a few years’ experience the fear is gone, but it’s still a tiresome game.
As dispatcher, the guy wants “loyal soldiers”—drivers who will do whatever. There’s a lot of effort to manipulate new drivers into this position. As a woman it’s even harder. The dispatcher is the big cheese and you’re the new girl. You’re coming into a mostly male workplace where there is always the male competition to see who and if anyone’s gonna “score.” So the pressure from the dispatcher really used to get me when I first started. The worst part was that he had been successful with one of the women that came before me. At the time, I didn’t have a particular boyfriend that I could use as my “protector” (bad practice anyway). So it kind of makes you fair game according to male thinking. You put up with a lot of sexual innuendo, like this dispatcher’s standard, “Should I call you in the morning or should I just nudge you?” And you can’t take it serious. It takes a lot of energy just to stand your ground—balancing male egos with your right to survive. I wanted a job, I wanted to be a good truck driver, I wanted to be able to pull my weight as a driver. So years have passed now and somehow I survived. The guys are beginning to see me as a real human, not just a broad with legs and boobs. And the dispatcher has passed to the point of seeing me as a driver, I think.
One of the hardest parts of this job to learn is that you’re in charge at the job site, which is difficult as a female. You have to have a certain amount of confidence about what the truck can do, what you can do, and what’s the easiest, most efficient way to get this heavy, obnoxious stuff out of the truck so the guys aren’t killing themselves. And the things that people ask you to do are just insane. You know, they want you to go upside down and turn around. Also you have to be able to lift the chutes and lug one-hundred-pound sacks of cement. That’s basically what the job is. It’s kind of fun now when I go to job sites. They don’t expect a girl to know what she’s doing, and I will put them on like it’s my second day on the job, and then do it just right. It’s fun to feel some confidence—experience is a great teacher. But there will always be that “dumb broad” syndrome. It seems they will always think women aren’t quite as capable.
The drivers and I are all pretty good friends now, but I don’t know if they will ever think I know how to drive a truck. It’s like they’re always surprised if I can do a certain job. It’s like you will always be a little slow, a little less than up to snuff. On this one job I was on recently, I had to go back into a kind of tight place. Another driver came up while I was pouring and said, “Oh Marge, you’re doing real good.” Boy, what a surprise. I mean, where has he been? What have I been doing all this time?
It’s a normal, working-class job, and so, yes, there is racial prejudice. The men are very—not really—narrow-minded. They’ve seen a lot of different things and people in the course of their job. They’ve been around some black people. The cement finishers are often black and there’s one black guy down where I work. He’s one of the more together guys, as far as knowing what’s bullshit and what’s not bullshit. And he’s fairly respected, and they don’t mess with him much. But most of the guys are from the south end and grew up in real white working-class neighborhoods—it’s gross, the things that they say. One minute they’ll be talking about some black guy—“This so-and-so is great, really knows his stuff!” But then five minutes later they’ll be telling some joke about a nigger. I think it’s just the world they live in. So where they may tell these terrible jokes about black people or women, they are not as bad as they seem. They just live in a world with that kind of thinking. Construction, in most trades, is really very white, and of course very male.
You’ve got to take the situation of construction. Sex, money, and macho toughness are major topics of conversation. Guys tend to want to be better or best in such categories. Having been a waitress, the come-ons and standard bullshit are not so new. But still it takes a lot of energy figuring out the best way to react—when to be rude and when to laugh it off.
I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and talked with any of the guys about the sex stuff, because guys don’t understand how harassing that can be or how it gets you down—that it seems the only thing a high majority of men think about is sex and what you might be like in bed. You want to be thought of as more than that. The thought process is so different in men and women. It’s opposite ends. I think it’s going to be real interesting in the years to come as women go into the workplace. There’s going to be a crossing of very different norms. Just being friends with a woman is a whole new world for most men. ’Cause usually they are just married to their one woman and most of the others they look at are bodies—possible escapades, or at least flirtations.
I really think most men feel they’re complimenting women when they come on to them. Maybe they are—I try to be as straightforward as possible and get to know the guy for who he really is (usually married). Not always that simple, but it’s nice when the sexual energy fades enough so you can be friends and fellow workers. There’s still plenty of flirting and teasing at work now—but we’re friends, having fun, helping the day pass. It took me a long time to know who to trust. I think women in general tend to trust men too quickly—something about that confident male manner. Some of my scariest moments driving have been doing something some guy told me to do. Even though my instincts maybe questioned things, I figured the guy knew more than me and certainly must know what he’s doing. Not always so. I’ve learned to use my own head, put some confidence in my instincts, and keep my eyes and ears open. Ask lots of questions and pretty soon you figure out who knows what they’re talking about and who’s honest to you.
I’ve paid some pretty heavy dues in this job. As I look back on having done this for three-and-a-half years, I think I must have been crazy. When I was new, I just kept on wanting to learn how to do it. Now that I’m somewhat experienced, I realize you sacrifice a lot—your sensitivity, for one. You end up being real hardcore about some things and you have a very realistic viewpoint about the world that is a little one-sided, because you are in this position of being a woman in an all-men’s field. So you get cynical about men in a lot of ways. But you also get to appreciate men in what they do on the job.
Construction is often hard work, dangerous; it takes a lot out of their bodies. Their humor and stories have kept me in stitches more than once. The camaraderie they have—it’s different from the kind women have. They can be so cool to each other and yet they understand and seem to know what’s going on with each other. Men seem to judge each other pretty harshly; they’re terrible gossips, and yet everyone’s part of this working machine. I remember the main thing they told me when I went down there was, “Just cover your own ass”—meaning you never know who will really stand by you. And it’s true, they play a tough game. Yet I’ve learned a lot from the guys I work with. They’ve helped me out a lot and most of them are pretty good people. You just got to know you’re going to run into some jerky attitudes and a few real jerks.
Probably during the strike was the main time of everybody coming together. The guys had gotten pretty much screwed on the contract before this one. It had a bad cost of living and the increase in health and welfare benefits came out of the wages, so sometimes our wages actually went down. This time everybody was pretty hot to get a good contract, and there was an organization that got started with the shop stewards. The stewards held meetings at every company to find out what the guys thought should be in the contract and then got together and made a list, which went back to the guys again. There was really good communication. Nobody had been through a strike. There hadn’t been one in sand and gravel for thirty years. But we thought it was a prime time. It was September and everybody was finishing their work before the really rainy season and how can you do it without concrete? But it didn’t work out that way. The construction companies started getting nervous and brought in concrete from out of the county—from Vashon, or they’d pay a hundred dollars a yard just to get it out of Monroe or something! They bought old rollers so they could haul their own concrete. They had all kinds of trouble with it, and it wasn’t effective in replacing us. But their main deal was to not let the workers think they were winning. Then the press started coming down on us, and our union pulled out all the stops to get us back to work. They mistrusted the fact that we drivers had organized ourselves. It seemed like everything was crumbling and we all got pretty scared. Finally we went back to work with an offer that’d we’d voted down earlier. It was a real bad ending, but at the same time we did win some important things that we wouldn’t have gotten without striking. Most important, we had stood together.
It took a long time to think of myself as a woman and as a truck driver. The two did not combine for a long time. At home you want to be able to do beautiful things, you want to look pretty, and to have clean nails. You want to be able to sew beautiful things and have pretty flowers in your house. You want to feel like a woman. You want to feel like you can be in a relationships and be a normal woman in a relationship. The job makes you feel sort of hardened. You gotta have your guts up to par, you’ve gotta go for it, you gotta go fast. It’s a real grind-it-out type of thing. At home I want just the opposite type of thing—things that have always been part of my life. But they’ve kinda slid away. I feel like this job takes away my creativity, zaps it away. I need a week off before I can even think of making something pretty.
The job just takes so much out of you physically. I screwed up my back, had to go to a chiropractor, from lifting sacks of gravel. They weigh around a hundred pounds each. And the pounding of the trucks is bad. You’re always in a rush. And the bumps on the roads, it really shakes you up. I’ve gotten so I wear supportive bras. Just going down the Alaskan Way viaduct is murder on some trucks.
I used to be really conscious of whether getting muscles was going to show. Yeah, I used to be afraid I was going to look like this big-shouldered broad. I didn’t want to look like a broad. I wanted to look pretty. Now it’s fun having more muscles. I like to get stronger. But you have to balance it out. Like some parts of your body get used a lot and other parts not very much. Also it’s hard on kidneys and bladders, because on a lot of jobs, like, there aren’t places for women to go to the bathroom. What do you do? You just wait.
And tired—for a long time I really cut back on social things because I was going to bed at nine or nine-thirty just so I could manage to get up the next day. In the summer you work a lot of overtime, so the main people you get to know are from work. It was real hard to get a balance where I was knowing and seeing other people. I need a social life away from work. You meet people on jobs and I used to go out with men from jobs and that usually ended up in disaster. There was too much conflict trying to put two different worlds together. You don’t have enough time in the middle of pouring cement to get a decent perception of a person. I don’t know. Still if I meet somebody really interesting on the job, maybe I would go out with him, but almost never. There were a few that I met that were just neat, neat guys, but if you get into socializing it’s awful hard when you go back on those jobs and work. I mean, the way guys do rumors is just incredible!
I think I’m finally back to having some decent relationships—where I could really feel that I was a woman, that I could really care about somebody. I screwed up a number of relationships when I first started driving truck. I was just too involved with the job, or else I would look for somebody to take me away from all of this. I don’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t myself. I would be confused about why somebody would like me, especially being around men on the job—you get so cynical ’bout whether somebody likes you for your body or what.
One of the hardest things for me was that there was no place for me to look to see role models. There’s other women driving trucks but they’re all experimenting with the same thing. I find that all women have different ways of doing it. Some go into it hustling the men. Some of them are going into it being tough machos. You just have to figure it out yourself. In some ways I have taken the easy way out, because I like to get along with the people I work with. I don’t like to bring on conflict constantly, but at the same time I take a pretty hard position on what’s important—how people relate to each other. A lot is past history, part of the scenario, so you don’t say, “Hey, you’re being a male chauvinist pig.” You’re working with that. It’s just getting to have some kind of working relationship and then, with luck, you find you have a human relationship.
I still ask myself if it’s worth it. The hard times, the changes you go through. Some days it seems perfectly normal for me to have such a job—I like driving, being outdoors, being physical, meeting the different people on the job sites. I like the never-boring challenge of the new situations you’re constantly put in. The job itself has a lot of good points. But on some days it seems like such a male world—why would a woman bother with such nonsense? I still think we can do without the nonsense, but I also think there’s much we as women can learn from working with men, and there certainly is a lot men can learn from women. It’s very encouraging to see more and more competent women out there working alongside the men.
The major thing I would say to a woman going into this work is try not to bullshit yourself into this kind of romantic idea. The romantic side is just not there. It’s hard work. Period.
* Cement is the dry stuff and concrete the wet mixture with sand and gravel—fascinating, right? [Marge’s correction to manuscript]